Monthly Archives: October 2012

Happy Samhain

A reprise of my traditional Hallowe’en post of past years:

It is that time of year again. What has become a time of disinhibited hijinx and mayhem, and a growing marketing bonanza for the kitsch-manufacturers and -importers, has primeval origins as the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The harvest is over, summer ends and winter begins, the Old God dies and returns to the Land of the Dead to await his rebirth at Yule, and the land is cast into darkness. The veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead becomes frayed and thin, and dispossessed dead mingle with the living, perhaps seeking a body to possess for the next year as their only chance to remain connected with the living, who hope to scare them away with ghoulish costumes and behavior, escape their menace by masquerading as one of them, or placate them with offerings of food, in hopes that they will go away before the new year comes. For those prepared, a journey to the other side could be made at this time.

With Christianity, perhaps because with calendar reform it was no longer the last day of the year, All Hallows’ Eve became decathected, a day for innocent masquerading and fun, taking its name Hallowe’en as a contraction and corruption of All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Day may have originated in its modern form with the 8th century Pope Gregory III. Hallowe’en customs reputedly came to the New World with the Irish immigrants of the 1840’s. The prominence of trick-or-treating has a slightly different origin, however.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

Jack-o’-lanterns were reportedly originally turnips; the Irish began using pumpkins after they immigrated to North AMerica, given how plentiful they were here.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.

Folk traditions that were in the past associated wtih All Hallows’ Eve took much of their power, as with the New Year’s customs about which I write here every Dec. 31st, from the magic of boundary states, transition and liminality.

The idea behind ducking, dooking or bobbing for apples seems to have been that snatching a bite from the apple enables the person to grasp good fortune. Samhain is a time for getting rid of weakness, as pagans once slaughtered weak animals which were unlikely to survive the winter. A common ritual calls for writing down weaknesses on a piece of paper or parchment, and tossing it into the fire. There used to be a custom of placing a stone in the hot ashes of the bonfire. If in the morning a person found that the stone had been removed or had cracked, it was a sign of bad fortune. Nuts have been used for divination: whether they burned quietly or exploded indicated good or bad luck. Peeling an apple and throwing the peel over one’s shoulder was supposed to reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. One way of looking for omens of death was for peope to visit churchyards

La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

The Witches’ Sabbath aspect of Hallowe’en seems to result from Germanic influence, and fusion with the notion of Walpurgisnacht. (Familiar with the magnificent musical evocation of this, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain?) Although probably not yet in a position to shape mainstream American Hallowe’en traditions, Mexican Dia de los Muertos observances have started to contribute some delightful and whimsical iconography to our encounter with the eerie and unearthly as well.

What was Hallowe’en like forty or fifty years ago in the U.S. when, bastardized as it has become with respect to its pagan origins, it retained a much more traditional flair? For my purposes, suffice it to say that it was before the era of the pay-per-view ’spooky-world’ type haunted attractions and its Martha Stewart yuppification with, as this irreverent Salon article from several years ago [via walker] puts it, monogrammed jack-o’-lanterns and the like. Related, a 1984 essay by Richard Seltzer, frequently referenced in other sources, entitled “Why Bother to Save Hallowe’en?”, argues as I do that reverence for Hallowe’en is good for the soul.

“Maybe at one time Hallowe’en helped exorcise fears of death and ghosts and goblins by making fun of them. Maybe, too, in a time of rigidly prescribed social behavior, Hallowe’en was the occasion for socially condoned mischief — a time for misrule and letting loose. Although such elements still remain, the emphasis has shifted and the importance of the day and its rituals has actually grown.…(D)on’t just abandon a tradition that you yourself loved as a child, that your own children look forward to months in advance, and that helps preserve our sense of fellowship and community with our neighbors in the midst of all this madness.”

That would be anathema to certain segments of society, however. Hallowe’en certainly inspires a backlash by fundamentalists who consider it a blasphemous abomination. ‘Amateur scholar’ Isaac Bonewits details academically the Hallowe’en errors and lies he feels contribute to its being reviled. Some of the panic over Hallowe’en is akin to the hysteria, fortunately now debunked, over the supposed epidemic of ‘ritual Satanic abuse’ that swept the Western world in the ’90’s.

The horror film has become inextricably linked to Hallowe’en tradition, although the holiday itself did not figure in the movies until John Carpenter took the slasher genre singlehandedly by storm. Googling “scariest films”, you will, grimly, reap a mother lode of opinions about how to pierce the veil to journey to the netherworld and reconnect with that magical, eerie creepiness in the dark (if not the over-the-top blood and gore that has largely replaced the subtlety of earlier horror films).

In any case: trick or treat!


‘What Would President Romney Do?

See for yourself!.

“If you’re anywhere near the path of Hurricane Sandy and you’re still considering voting for a Republican, peer into the crystal ball of President Mitt Romney telling you to go fuck yourself in case of a catastrophe. According to the Mittster, when CNN’s John King asked him about FEMA, Federal funding for disaster relief is “immoral,” and is best left to the states or, “even better,” to the private sector.

Of course, unlike most of the residents of the Eastern seaboard all the way through to Michigan, when disaster strikes for Mitt Romney, he and Ann just pick up stakes, jump into their private jet and head off to another one of their palatial homes. Not his fault you don’t work hard enough. He sent you a bus, didn’t he, moocher?

I just read that Obama says that he doesn’t expect the hurricane to have much of an effect on the election, but I’d say this is a net gain for him, not Romney, but especially with videotape like this around to haunt the GOP nominee. Federal emergency aid? IMMORAL! Tax cuts for millionaire “job creators”? Bring it on!

You’d have to have your head examined to vote for Romney in the face of an act of God like this one. Would Romney really give the cold shoulder to red states caught up in devastation? He says he would, let’s take him at his word.” (Dangerous Minds)

Richard Mourdock Is Not Alone


Richard Mourdock - Caricature

At Least A Dozen GOP Senate Candidates Oppose Abortion For Rape Victims: “GOP Senate candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin have faced outrage and derision from both Democrats and Republicans for their controversial comments about whether rape victims should have access to abortion.

Akin famously said that women who have been victims of a “legitimate rape” are physically unable to become pregnant. Mourdock, more recently, said he believes that pregnancies resulting from these horrific assaults are “something God intended.”

At the heart of these comments is their belief that rape victims who become pregnant should not be able to have access to abortion. While Akin and Mourdock perhaps stumbled in explaining why they hold this view, it’s a position that is actually not that uncommon in their party: At least 11 other GOP Senate nominees this cycle, as well as dozens of House candidates and incumbents, agree.” (Huffington Post)

‘Kill us all, then bury us here’

Desperate appeal of Indians facing eviction: “A group of Brazilian Indians who endured violence and death to return to their land have made a dramatic appeal to the government after learning that they face eviction once more.The 170 Indians, members of the 46,000-strong Guarani tribe in Brazil, have suffered several brutal attacks since going back to a small part of their ancestral land. The Indians’ territory, known as Pyelito Kuê/ M’barakai, is now occupied by a ranch. The Indians are surrounded by the rancher’s gunmen, with little access to food or health care.Last month a judge ordered their eviction. Now the Indians have declared in a letter, ‘This ruling is part of the historic extermination of the indigenous peoples of Brazil. We have lost hope


of surviving with dignity, and without violence, on our ancestral land… We will all die soon.‘We want to die and be buried with our ancestors right here, so we ask the government and the justice system not to order our eviction, but to order our collective death and our burial here. We ask, once and for all, for our slaughter to be ordered, and for tractors to dig a big hole for our bodies.‘We have decided, all together, not to leave here, dead or alive.’Four Guarani from the community have already died since the reoccupation: two from suicide, and two following attacks by gunmen. lFUNAI, Brazil’s indigenous affairs department, which is responsible for mapping out Guarani land, and demarcating it, says it is working to overturn the eviction order.” (Survival International).

If we’re heading for a split or a tie…

English: Cartogram of the 2008 Electoral Vote ...
Cartogram of the 2008 Electoral Vote

Jonathan Bernstein writes in The Washington Post: “With the latest polls suggesting at least the possibility of an electoral college/national vote split — most likely where President Obama wins the electoral college while Mitt Romney narrowly wins the national vote — I’ll make one suggestion. It may be a good idea for Bob Schieffer to carve out two or three minutes during the final debate to get the candidates to commit on record in advance, in a very public place, that they would fully support the electoral college winner – or, in the even more unlikely event of an electoral college tie, the winner of the vote in the House of Representatives. He could also ask them, for what it’s worth, of their view of the electoral college system in general, since we may be headed for controversy about it.”